The term “riff lord” is probably one that is used a little too loosely these days. Not, however, when used to describe Matt Pike – the man who took doom music to new levels of heaviness in Sleep and won a Grammy in 2019 for his work with High On Fire.
His background in writing terrifying riffs has made him a modern equivalent of Tony Iommi – and much like the legend of Black Sabbath himself, Pike’s ideas carry galactic weight strong enough to have their own orbit.
This year, he released his first solo album, brilliantly titled Pike against the automatonvia MNRK Heavy, the label that changed name from eOne Heavy in September last year.
Recorded over the past year or so, with the pandemic and lockdowns killing an overwhelming majority of tour dates around the world, Pike describes the new music as a fluke that happened haphazardly as the music industry music healed his deep wounds, of which there were many…
“Covid has been a strange time for all,” he admits. “With all the lockdowns, plus all those California fires, I wasn’t getting together with people like I used to. But I had a friend named Jon Reid who came by often. the confinements, jamming only on drums and guitar. We started to have a few songs under our belt. It went from there…”
The album also features special guests, including Mastodon’s Brent Hinds on the track. LandsTodd Burdette of Tragedy on throated cobra and High On Fire bandmate Jeff Matz, who performed the Turkish electric saz heard on the album’s 11-minute music video Quit the wars of woe. It was a surprising collaborative experience for a first solo, explains the stoner metal legend.
“I started asking other people who would like to play on it,” Pike continues, “to focus on the strength of the instrument they were playing or what we were looking for. And I really made sure that the tracks I had written played to those strengths, creating the right foundation to work through all kinds of ideas.It was a lot of fun and kept me busy and kept me out of trouble.
“The studio would shut down for a bit, then reopen again, so I was working on three songs. Then it would close, and when it reopened, I would finish three more songs…”
Has the fact that this is your first solo album affected your approach to guitar solos?
“I think so. I was inspired by my own guitar heroes, I experimented with the music I liked, I created my own versions of it. For example, the first solo you hear on the record is supposed to be what would happen if Brian May played on this track for me…because I couldn’t really to have him to do it [laughs]! So I did it myself.
“There’s another song called Trapped in a Midcave, where I wanted a Michael Schenker solo, which is nothing like what I would normally do. I think he’s definitely underrated as a guitarist. It has this weird diatonic mixolydian thing going on. I love its shapes and its strokes.
“I think I kind of nailed it in one take, even though I didn’t analyze it too much. I remember everybody if I had to do a few more versions and they were like, ‘Nah , you have finished !’ They wouldn’t even let me double it.Sometimes less is more, just do it and move on to the next thing.
Roping to Brent Hinds for Lands It was a great hit – he’s an incredible soloist, thanks to his mix of shrill blues and chicken pickin’.
“He came straight off the porch in Alabama. That’s how it looks…it’s the real deal! Give this man a banjo and he’ll blow your mind. Give him a guitar, he’ll blow your mind. Give it anything and it will blow you away. He took the first solo of a song and it was so good that I told him to keep playing throughout the song, even on the vocal parts.
“He did lap steel and slide, and that other Billy Gibbons solo. I was sitting there thinking, ‘Fuck you! Really, man?!’ I had to go back and improve my own guitar sounds, re-amp the DIs and everything else just because it sounded so amazing. He did all his business at Mastodon’s studio. I think it gave us all something to do.
This song also showcases a softer side of you. How did you write it exactly?
“Yeah, it’s different. I was playing on a 12 string and Jon started playing, without hitting his drums very hard. We really liked where the music was heading. There were actually a few other tracks like that, we were going to get more on this album and I would love to do more in the future. I would love to do more with Brent too!
“The song is about this fucking villain being an asshole. You know how in movies, the villain has his moment of redemption where he reveals himself? Well, in this story, that doesn’t happen. He just dies ingloriously after a cheap life like total shit. That’s why the song ended up sounding like that.
Most of the album, however, is all about the low-end brutality you’re well-known for, with few frequencies in the upper range…
“I tried to mix it up a bit because I wanted this album to sound different from Sleep and High On Fire. But basically anything I play on is going to sound like me, in a strange way, shape or form. I tried to be as respectful as possible to my other bands – I didn’t want to step on any musicians’ toes – and I think I did a good job.
“Sound-wise, you don’t really hear any highs until the solos come in where I might hit the wah pedal or [Daredevil] Atomic Rooster. I like this pedal because I can adjust the sweep to get the right sound for different parts of the solo, making it sound like Tipton and Downing from Judas Priest or King and Hanneman from Slayer. It can feel like two different guys are walking back and forth, discussing their shredding!
Speaking of gear, what else did you have on the board?
“When it comes to pedals, there’s always a lot of EarthQuaker stuff. I really like their Grand Orbiter Phase Machine – it has a very wide stereo phase and I think it’s one of the best around. I also had quite a few delays, like the MXR Echoplex – one of the reissues with the tap tempo, plus a Carbon Copy. I’ll be using one that’s a shorter quick delay and one that’s set to long. You can create interesting repetitions by using them together.
“There was also the Daredevil Bootleg delay, which is really cool because it messes up the rehearsals and distorts them more. You can do some crazy bullshit with that. I managed to get my hands on an original Mu-Tron [phaser] which was in perfect condition, brand new in the box. I got it from a DJ – after I spotted it, I said, “I’ll give you money for it!” It ended on a lot of things. So there was a lot of phase and delay.
And what did you use for your main guitars and amps?
“I used one of my Laney heads from the 80s, which has this enormous depth. There was also a [Fender] Hot Rod and two Soldano SLOs, plus this Yamaha that Soldano made before he started the company. It’s a combo, but you can put it in a cab. I used all of these amps in different combinations, along with different mic techniques to capture all the tones.
“I played just about every guitar I owned. There was a Les Paul Recording for some things, especially if I needed a little whammy bar. It doesn’t stay in tune very long, so I would use it here and there for some phrases Gibson gave me an Explorer not long ago I fucking love that guitar – it’s just stock I put my [signature] Lace Dragonaut pickups inside.
You’ve been known to play quite a few 70s Gibsons – tell us about the collection…
“Yeah, I have a 1974 Les Paul Custom which is a three-pickup blonde, which is absolutely gorgeous. This one has the two Lollar Imperials and my Lace pickups, and I had it wired up so you can run them all at the same time. My other Les Paul is also wired this way – this one is an Artisan natural finish. I love these guitars, they are so badass.
“I’ve also used my ’76 SG with some Imperials and a Seger YG with Lace pickups, which is another guitar I love. It has a wider gap between the strings which works great for my hands. I own quite a few Les Pauls, to be honest, from old Customs to more modern ones like Supremes, of which I have a white and a black one. There was also a lot of 12-string stuff in there!
What do you look for in a Les Paul when you’re in a guitar shop?
“There are a lot of things I’m looking for, but playability is always important. I’m going to play a bunch of them for hours at a store to make my decision. For me it’s like trying on clothes [laughs]! Then I do my own little upgrades, like changing the pickups or putting in a titanium bridge, because I rip the stock ones really fast. Titaniums last much longer!
Holy Mountain turns 30 in November. Which riffs are you most proud of and what is the secret of your most classic Sleep riffs?
” I do not really know ! At the time, I didn’t really know shit. When we got into this mode of writing, it was a bit doom and gothic, while being punk rock at the same time. We took the Black Sabbath route. I was studying a lot of music while we were doing Holy Mountaingo to jazz theory school to better understand the links between writing and improvisation.
“I took those college classes just to get into that zone. I guess we had some magic that came out when we played. We were just kids coming into our late teens.
“Al [Cisneros, vocals/bass] listened to a lot of Weather Report and Rush, while I was probably shooting a lot of Sabbath. He left as he left. It’s definitely my favorite Sleep album. It was a pleasant moment. The Druid is a song of which I am particularly proud, although I must say all the riffs on Holy Mountain are killers! »